LEWISTOWN – Seventy-seven years have passed since that fateful day when Hal Conrad found himself in the middle of a moment that would change the course of American history.
“It was great a surprise. Surprised the hell out of me,” Conrad said Friday at his home in Lewistown.
It was supposed to be his day to sleep in after getting a pass to Honolulu the night before.
“At 5 o’clock in the morning, they shook me awake. And the charge of quarters, he was shaking me, saying the ‘guy who was supposed to watch the water tower from six to noon is sick. You are going to have to take his place,’” Conrad said.
A couple of hours later—looking out at Pearl Harbor—Conrad noticed silver airplanes he thought were U.S. Navy planes training. They weren’t.
“I watched the first plane drop his bomb and I thought it was a dummy until it disappeared behind the trees along the fence line between me and Pearl. And black smoke started rolling up and concussions started rumbling through, and I knew it wasn’t no dummy,” Conrad recalled.
Conrad was witnessing the beginning of the Japanese attack, but at first, no one believed him.
“I grabbed my field phone, called my CP and said, ‘The Japs are bombing the hell out of Pearl Harbor!’ And he says ‘You’re still drunk,’” he said with a quiet laugh.
Before the day was over, 18 U.S. ships were sunk or damaged, almost 200 U.S. aircraft destroyed, and 2,403 people killed.
As the onslaught continued, Conrad came under fire by the passing Japanese planes.
“Every one that went by there had a backseat gunner, grinning like a Cheshire cat, pop off a few rounds at me. I found out later that there were 40 of those planes and I think every one of them took a shot at me and missed.”
Later he would also find out that the barracks where he would have been sleeping – had he not been called into duty that morning – had been hit, and many of his friends were killed.
“It’s a good thing I had to go on duty when I wasn’t supposed to. I would have been in there.”
Now at the age of 97, Conrad is one of a dwindling number of Pearl Harbor survivors left to tell the story of that dark day.
When asked why it’s important that Americans remember Pearl Harbor, he gives an answer you might not expect.
“Because that was a surprise attack that should never have happened,” he said. “Apparently Roosevelt knew about it, but he had promised Churchill we would get in the war and he knew if he let the Japs hit us, Congress would declare war immediately.”
Whether that’s true or not has been the subject of much debate, but the attack on Pearl Harbor will go down in history as the impetus for America’s entry into the Second World War. A war the U.S. would help win thanks to guys like Hal Conrad.
-Russ Riesinger reporting for MTN News